Montana senators use wildfires to pump for more logging

It is now wildfire season in Montana and in the rest of the western states. It is similar to recent years. This means quite a few wildfires in August. The year-to-year differences are almost entirely accounted for by the weather (forest dryness, the temperature, thunderstorms, and presence of wind). August is the prime month because that month is hot, dry, and has more thunderstorms than the rest of the summer.

Every August politicians use the fires to grow political hay. Montana’s two senators are claiming the Forest Service is managing forests badly, hence the wildfires. Their solution is more logging. There are many problems with this. On the most practical level, it costs money to plan, layout and monitor a timber sale. Fighting wildfires consumes more and more of the FS budget almost every year, leaving little money for the many other things they do, including timber sales.

The senators like to focus on the dead and dying timber. Timber operators, however, don’t like to cut this because they make their money on green timber. Cutting dead and dying timber requires a subsidy. Where’s the money to do it? Too often only the valuable logs are removed. The twisted, small diameter, defective trees remain with their feet in leftover, small diameter logging debris. The result is little to no reduction in flammability due to the presence of fuel.

The truth is that while dying timber can be very susceptible to wildfire, the likelihood of wildfire declines when the trees die. The probability of fire grows less every year as the dead trees lose their flammable chemicals and the smaller branches fall off making it so the trees no longer touch each other. Large dead trees are mostly just cellulose. There are hard to ignite.

Calls for Forest Service logging usually follow a particularly dramatic fire, and the Roaring Lion Fire of early August in the Bitterroot Mountains fits the pattern. This was an amazingly rapid conflagration as this video shows. The winds in the canyon were extreme.

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George Wuerthner just wrote a critique of Senator Steve Daines’ position on wildfire. Daines’ uses Roaring Lion as his example.

Reply to Senator Daines
By George Wuerthner

Senator Daines’s editorial on wildfire and forest policy that appeared in the IR on August 5th deserves some response.
For instance, the Senator suggested in his editorial that the Roaring Lion Fire by Hamilton was driven by accumulations of fuel created by bark beetles.
This is a common myth promoted by the timber industry, but a myth that has been debunked by scientific studies. Bark beetle-killed trees actually burn less readily than live trees.
What burns in a forest fire is the fine fuels—the needles, small branches, and so forth. That is why you have snags after a fire. Large diameter fuels don’t burn readily.
Thus dead snags created by beetles tend to be less flammable than green trees with their flammable needles, resins and small branches intact.
What the Senator neglects to mention is that winds were blowing at 50 mph or more at the time of ignition. And there is abundant evidence that high winds are the major factor in the rapid spread of any fire.
Indeed, it is extreme fire weather conditions of low humidity, high temperatures, drought and most importantly, high winds that drives all large and fast moving fires.
This brings up the next fallacy of Senator Daines’s comments. He asserts that if we only thinned (code for logging) more forests we would see fewer large fires. Again the science on thinning questions this assertion for a host of reasons.
The science surrounding the effectiveness of thinning to reduce large blazes is ambiguous at best. Given all the money we are throwing at this tactic; one might want to see more convincing evidence that it actually works.
There are a number of reasons to be suspect of thinning as forest policy.
The Senator insinuates that if we only “managed” more of our forests, we could reduce the occurrence of large wildfires. But one only has to look at the failure of “managed” lands in precluding large fires.
For instance, large wildfires burned through, over and across the former heavily logged Plum Creek lands in the Gold Creek drainage along the Blackfoot or in the Jocko Lakes Fire near Seeley Lake and in the heavily logged private and FS lands along Rye Creek in the Bitterroot NF to name a few places where logging did not preclude or even slow these large blazes.
Second, logging/thinning reduces competition for light, water, and nutrients among the remaining vegetation, which causes rapid regrowth of more flammable fire fuels like small trees, shrubs, and grasses.
Thus the effectiveness of any thinning project, even if we were to be generous and grant they might work on occasion, is short-lived. Depending on the ecosystem type this may be as little as 5-10 years, at which point you have do additional “maintenance.” Follow up fuel reduction seldom occurs once the valuable logs are removed by the timber industry.
Third this brings up the third factor. Probability. Since one cannot predict where and when a fire will occur, the vast majority of all logging/thinning projects never encounter a blaze during the short time they may be effective.
Furthermore, logging is not benign. It has its own set of collateral damage including the spread of weeds along logging roads, sedimentation from logging roads that harms fisheries, fragmentation of habitat and loss of security cover for big game species like elk, loss of biomass (dead trees) and carbon storage, and so on.
It may seem counter-intuitive to generations brought up on Smoky the Bear messaging, but large high-severity fires and the snag forests they create are critical to healthy forest ecosystems.
Finally, most thinning/logging projects in the Rockies are money losers for the taxpayer. So we are not only impoverishing our forest ecosystems by logging, but we are losing money doing it.
The most efficient and economical way to protect homes is to reduce the flammability of the home site, not logging the forest.

BIO: George Wuerthner is an ecologist and the author of numerous articles and several books on wildfire including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy. When not traveling the West, he divides his time between Livingston, Montana and Bend, Oregon.

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Some newspapers are also criticizing Daines.

Daines should focus on climate change, not trees.” Montana Standard (reproduced in the Missoulian).



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  1. Lloyd Dorsey Avatar
    Lloyd Dorsey

    This article by Ralph Maughan and the reply to Senator Daines by George Wuerthner are important to keep in the public discourse now and in the future. We’ll no doubt have to defend against calls to preemptively “manage” public lands forests to reduce wildfire again and again. Thanks for writing and posting these.

  2. Gary Humbard Avatar
    Gary Humbard

    Wildfire is a complicated issue, but there are some known factors that affect wildfire behavior.

    First and foremost is weather with winds being the biggest driver. Without moderate to high winds, wildfire behavior is substantially reduced.

    Fuels are the next big factor and the only one that humans can affect, hence the call for more logging. Fuel arrangement, size, quantity, decomposition rate, moisture content and tree species all affect wildfire behavior. While it is true that standing dead trees do not burn as readily as green trees, the needles and limbs from the dead trees accumulate on the ground thus increasing ground fuels. As dead trees die, they too fall with the boles adding to the fuel loading. The majority of wildfire is driven by ground fire which can create torching or crowning fire that most people think drives wildfire.

    The arrangement of fuels (i.e. continuous, scattered, piled) is as important as quantity. Beetle killed stands tend to have patches of dead trees intermixed with green trees thus creating a potential for severe wildfire behavior. The 1988 Yellowstone Fires were largely characterized by a mosaic of beetle killed stands with large accumulations of dead ground and aerial fuels.

    As stands are attacked by bark beetles, certain tree species are killed (lodgepole pine) while others are either less affected or virtually unaffected (true firs). As beetle killed trees die and ground fuels accumulate, other tree species colonize the openings, potentially creating ladder fuels for crowning wildfire. These openings also provide light, nutrients and water to live plants.

    Fuel arrangement, size, species composition, live vs dead, and weather factors, aspect on slope and amount of solar radiation all affect fuel moisture which can have a significant affect on fire behavior.

    Although I’m not a proponent of logging to reduce the potential for catastrophic wildfire, I am a proponent of federal timber sales that are designed to restore degraded habitats and accelerate older forest conditions. If this means “subsidizing” the timber industry to accomplish these goals, while providing the demand for wood products and jobs, and assuring the environment is protected to the highest standard, so be it.

    IMHO, the Forest Service and BLM should significantly curtail their fire suppression efforts, thus saving millions of dollars annually that would then be available for restoration work. Past fire suppression efforts have partially caused the situation we have, but, of course that would take political courage, of which seems in short supply.

    1. Nancy Avatar

      Have you read this article Gary? A good read 🙂

      “It’s a distant beat, born in the marbled halls of Congress, where political forces blow an ill wind across Colorado’s forests.

      Nearly every Western elected official with a clump of shrubby cottonwoods in his or her jurisdiction claims to be a forest expert. And when senators and congress members make forest policy, rhetoric usually trumps science — as is the case with laws requiring new logging projects that may wipe out some of the very trees needed to replenish forests in the global warming era”

      “In order to have adaptation, it’s all genetics,” Six said, explaining that scientists are trying to figure out why some trees in hard-hit areas survived the wave of bugs”

      “A lot of us had no idea what was going on. Then a pattern started to stand out. In these forests stands where some trees survived, they had strikingly different growth rates.”

  3. Ralph Maughan Avatar
    Ralph Maughan


    That is an incredible article.

    Gary, thanks for your comments.

    My general thought is that logging should take place in generally healthy green forests. I haven’t seen much good come from timber salvage, although it often creates nice meadows (probably not intended).

    1. Nancy Avatar

      I thought so too, Ralph. Stumbled across the article while doing a Google search.

      1. Mareks Vilkins Avatar
        Mareks Vilkins

        “Aftermath of Mountain Pine Beetle Outbreak in British Columbia: Stand Dynamics, Management Response and Ecosystem Resilience”

        5 August 2016

        This review explores the ramifications of the MPB epidemic with respect to mid-term timber supply, forest growth, structure and composition, vegetation diversity, forest fire, climate change, and ecosystem resilience.
        Research confirms that, in British Columbia, all of these variables are more significantly impacted when salvage logging is used as management response to the outbreak. We conclude that appropriate
        management in response to MPB is essential to ensuring ecologically resilient future forests and reliable mid-term timber supplies for affected human communities. We highlight knowledge gaps and avenues for research to advance our understanding in support of sustainable post-disturbance
        forest management policies in British Columbia and elsewhere.

        1. Mareks Vilkins Avatar
          Mareks Vilkins

          Diana L.Six (author referenced in article about Colorado forests)

          “Management for Mountain Pine Beetle Outbreak Suppression: Does Relevant Science Support Current Policy?”

    2. Mat-ters Avatar

      Ralph, Sat down with a fire crew from Utah that just spent a week in Idaho. The subject of timber salvage came up. They do want open areas as a result of the salvage. It’s an objective in some to most salvage contracts.

      1. Mat-ters Avatar

        two weeks


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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